Spring is a big time of year for the college-bound — getting acceptance letters, figuring out financial aid, making a decision. Even in a typical year, it can be overwhelming. But as we all know, this is not a typical year.
Shereen Marisol Meraji, c0-host of NPR's Code Switch podcast asks Elissa Nadworny, an NPR Education reporter and Life Kit host, some big questions about navigating college admissions during the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When will students likely hear back from colleges about acceptance for the fall?
So this is actually the thing that hasn't really changed amid coronavirus. The majority of schools have been on track — usually March and early April — to admit or deny students. Of course, a lot of schools have already sent out admissions decisions, since they may use rolling admissions. So students could have found out as early as mid-winter.
"I've not seen a single college say, 'Hey, our admissions decisions or financial aid decisions will be delayed,'" says Marie Bingham, founder and co-leader of the non-profit ACCEPT, which works with admissions offices to keep things equitable.
"If anything, I've seen colleges say, 'Hey, we know this is on your mind and we're going to make sure we're on track.'"
This crisis is already taking a financial toll on families across the country. Can families apply for more financial aid if they need it?
This is definitely an option. Honestly, this happens in normal years, too. For colleges that you've been accepted to and have given you a financial aid package, you can apply to have that increased if something in your family has changed — if a family member has been laid off or you've lost your part-time job. You need to reach out to the schools you've been accepted to and let them know. Some schools have forms on their websites to re-adjust financial aid, if they don't, send an email or pick up the phone.
I think this is also a really good opportunity to start having those kinds of conversations with your family. Money can be super tricky to talk about, but don't wait on that. Have those [discussions] now knowing that schools are prepared to be flexible in terms of aid and to work with you to make it happen.
Once you know what colleges you've been accepted to and what the financial aid situation is, trying to compare and contrast different options can be stressful, even under normal circumstances. How is this process different now that everything is happening remotely? Are there online resources to help you out?
Yes! There are a lot of tools to help you decode confusing college aid letters. We have one on our website that you can download and some school districts have tools that help too. So gather up all your financial aid offer letters and emails and start to plug in the numbers. Remember that your different offer letters aren't apples to apples because each school writes their own letters, they do their own calculations. Sometimes these documents will include loans. Since every school costs a different amount of money, you can't just compare the sum of money you are offered from each school. You've got to be really careful about decoding these and not getting distracted by the big bold number on the bottom.
This is also an opportunity to experiment with digital tools with your guidance counselors. Sanjay Mitchell, a guidance counselor in D.C, works with students who are prepping for college. Right now, he's working with students remotely to analyze these financial offer letters.
"I've had a student send me their financial aid award letter, and then I put it on my screen. And so I share the screen with them and just go through it line by line as if they were sitting in my office," he says.
In a typical year, students need to get these decisions in by May 1st. Is that still the expectation?
So this is the big change that we're seeing right now because of coronavirus. Lots of schools are pushing this deadline to June 1st. Nearly 300 schools have adopted the new date, giving families a chance to breathe, regroup and figure things out.
Has the coronavirus pandemic changed how college-bound students think about going far away to school?
I think this is on a lot of folks' minds. Mei Lamison, a high school student in Tampa, Florida was ready to go out of state. But with coronavirus, her mom is super nervous about Mei going far away if something happens. "If I'm not getting enough financial resources or information from a lot of these colleges that I initially really wished to go to, I might just be spending either my first semester, or my four years at my local school," she says.
Folks are also watching what colleges have been doing in the last couple of weeks with the students they already have. Did they allow them to stay on campus? What are they doing to help their current students? Did they refund tuition? And so I think that's influencing a lot of how they're feeling about where they want to go next year.
For students who haven't had a chance to visit the colleges they applied to, can they do that? Are there online resources for that?
So most college campuses have closed, which means they're not allowing visitors. They've canceled campus events, tours, info sessions, orientation events, accepted student days, and they've kind of shifted all of this online. A lot of people make a decision based on the feeling they get when they visit, so this is a big deal for them.
I talked with a high school senior from Austin named Xander Christou. He planned to spend the spring visiting some of the campuses he was accepted to. "Online, the colleges are just names and logos and programs," he says, "nothing will compare to actually being on campus and speaking face-to-face with current students."
But schools are trying: Admissions officers are getting creative — they're doing virtual tours and allowing prospective students to tune into the online learning experiences they're offering. The University of Virginia actually had all of its campus tour guides make TikToks.
Schools have "ramped up their online videos, their chat availability," says Bingham. "That's one of the things that admissions officers are working on really hard right now, is making sure that even if students can't visit, that they can still get a sense of a place and of information."
In some ways, this change could make things more equitable. In-person college visits are expensive, so they often leave low-income students out. Virtual content has the potential to actually make it easier for more students to have access to campus.
Of course, taking an online tour or watching a video on YouTube requires a good Internet connection. In normal times, lots of folks used the Internet at libraries and schools, which are now closed. So if you don't have the Internet at home or if you're just streaming from your phone, we acknowledge that this does put you at a bit of a disadvantage.
"A wide spread of students across the United States have the ability to flip open a computer, log onto the Internet, and the world just works normal for them," says Mitchell. "But there's a larger population of students where that doesn't happen. The Internet and the ability to connect to Wi-Fi is a luxury. It is not something that is a guaranteed ... in everyone's household."
School districts, non-profits, and local businesses have led pretty valiant efforts to help kids get online, but gaps remain.
Another thing that's very much up in the air because of the world we're living in right now is whether or not students can even be in a classroom and when that's going to happen. Is there any word about whether universities have considered doing online classes for the coming semesters?
We're seeing colleges offer more summer classes and programs online, but I have not seen anything cancelled or changed for the fall semester. I think colleges honestly are desperately hoping this resolves by September. In terms of tuition — the big question is: Is tuition going to stay the same? Utah voted to increase tuition at most of its public universities. We're facing a lot of economic uncertainty and colleges are right in the middle of that.
The college admissions process is often fraught with all kinds of emotions anyway — hope, anxiety, dejection and celebration. And now there's even more anxiety on top of that over this global health crisis. How are the students you've been talking to coping?
I think we have to acknowledge that this is a big disappointment for students, especially for high school seniors. It's not just college stuff — prom, graduation, everything is up in the air. So I think I think it's worth acknowledging that: this is a really big bummer.
We also need to remember that college is something a lot of students have had drilled into their brains since freshman year. Often high schools repeat "college, college, college." And when students get accepted, the spring is supposed to be super celebratory. A lot of schools advertise on websites or in the hallways where students decide to attend. Seniors can wear their future school's shirt on certain days. And a lot of that stuff is missing now.
Mitchell, the guidance counselor in D.C., said that in this kind of environment, it's not just the disappointment that worries him, it's the fact that when students are home, they may not be surrounded by a college-going culture. "So for seniors ... our school building was a space where they can have robust conversations about going to college and not be met with: 'It's a pipe dream. Don't even think about it,'" he says.
"Now a number of our students are like, 'Well, what is this process going to look like if I don't have you to be there talking to me directly in a one-on-one when I have questions? You know, my parents are overwhelmed. They're frustrated. They're nervous. They don't know what is going on. And then on top of that, I'm talking to them about going away to college. Right when colleges are sending students home at the same time.' "
What would you say is the number one takeaway for college bound students right now?
I think you've got to just take a deep breath and remember that you're not alone in this. It can feel like that because you're stuck in your home, you can't see your friends. You're not with your teachers or your guidance counselor. But just remember that your guidance counselor and the folks at your school are still working. The admissions offices and financial aid offices are still working, too. So you can reach out and ask questions. You are not alone in this.
Do you have tips on how you're navigating the new normal? From social distancing to homeschooling your kids, we'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Meghan Keane and Sylvie Douglis.